Miscellaneous musings from the perspective of a lefty (both senses) atheist with a warped sense of humor.

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Location: Madison, WI, United States

I am a geek, but I do have some redeeming social skills. I love other people's dogs, cats, and kids. Snow sucks, but I'm willing to put up with it just to live in Madison.

Monday, April 30, 2007

CCRV Gets Assembly Republican Support

Today's issue of The Capital Times reports that State Rep. Terry Musser (R - Black River Falls) has signed on as an Assembly sponsor of the Compassionate Care for Rape Victims bill. This marks a departure from the previous Republican opposition to the bill. Musser said he changed his mind due to persuasive testimony before the Senate Health and Human Services Committee, particularly that from survivors of sexual assault.

No doubt assisting in his change of heart was the altered position of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, representing the state's Roman Catholic bishops. It had opposed prior versions of the legislation but is now remaining neutral, saying that its primary concern had been addressed by this biennium's version of the bill, which would allow for pregnancy testing prior to administering emergency contraception.

Wisconsin Right to Life is also remaining neutral, but Pro-Life Wisconsin continues its opposition.

Musser and Rep. Mark Pocan (D - Madison) both stated that this is a non-partisan issue.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Double Feature Recommendation

For those who love good movies, the stars have aligned out at Madison's Market Square Cinemas (the cheap, 2nd-run theater), where you can watch a do-it-yourself double feature of The Last King of Scotland and The Queen, with Oscar-winning performances by Forest Whitaker as Idi Amin and Helen Mirren as Elizabeth 2. You can certainly see why they deserved the awards. It's perfect casting, ranking right up there with Christopher Reeve as Superman, Patrick Stewart as Professor Xavier, Madonna as Evita, and Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Further Testimony

After yesterday's posting that dealt with my testimony before a legislative committee, a friend was reminded of another story about testimony and sent it to me. I now share it with you:


A woman named Jill stood up at her church's Testimony Meeting, or as some churches call it, "Cry Sunday", one Sunday morning, took the microphone from one of the church ushers, and bared her soul to the enrapt congregation:

"I want to tell you about the awful accident that my husband, Jim, has suffered this past month. He was riding his bike, lost control, ran off the highway, and hit a tree. He was rushed to the hospital, and could have died, but — thank the Lord — all he suffered was a broken scrotum."

The congregation gasped in horror. The men were obviously uneasy and writhed in their seats.

"Jim has been in terrible pain all month since the accident. He has trouble breathing. He has trouble swallowing his food. He can hardly lift anything, he's in so much pain, and he has missed work because of it. He can't lift our children up to hold them and give them the personal love that they need. Worst of all, we can no longer cuddle and have intimate relations. He is in constant pain, a pain so terrible that our love life has all but slipped away into oblivion.

"I would like to ask you all in the congregation to pray for Jim, and pray for us, that his broken scrotum will soon heal and be as good as new."

A dull murmur erupted within the congregation as the full impact of this terrible accident sunk in, and the men in the congregation were visibly shaken up with the thought that there but for the grace of God go I.

Then, as the murmuring settled down, a lone figure stood up in midst of the congregation, worked his way up to the pulpit, obviously in pain, adjusted the microphone to his liking, then leaned over and said to the congregation:

"My name is Jim, and I have only one word for my wife, Jill. That word is: STERNUM!"

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Compassionate Care for Rape Victims

Compassionate Care for Rape Victims (CCRV) is a piece of state legislation (formally Senate Bill 129) that would guarantee that any woman who is sexually assaulted could go to any hospital in Wisconsin and receive information about emergency contraception (EC) as well as having EC dispensed immediately on the spot at her request. Today the Senate Health and Human Services Committee held an open hearing on CCRV, at which I testified. I spoke extemporaneously, but the event is still fresh enuf in my mind that I can largely recreate my comments, and I do so below.

First, however, the most memorable moment of the day. The last person to testify was a priest from Saint Paul’s Catholic Center on campus. He opposed the bill. Included in his testimony was this sentence, which I am able to quote verbatim because it burned itself into my memory:

“Rape isn’t always an unmitigated evil.”

My remarks:

I am here today only on behalf of myself, but I represent the point of view of 2 constituencies likely to be underrepresented on SB 129. The first is men.

Only women can get pregnant, so this bill has been framed largely as a women’s rights issue or women’s health matter. And that’s as it should be. But that’s not ALL it is, and I want to make sure that you don’t lose sight of the fact that sexual assault against women affects men as well.

Every woman who experiences sexual assault has a father. Most of them have brothers. Many of them have husbands, fiances, or boyfriends. Some of them have sons. And, while the effect on us men is only about like a 10th-generation photocopy, compared to what the woman went thru, we come in for our share of all of it.

For a woman, it’s her body that’s assaulted; for us, it’s a member of our family. She feels shock and horror. So do we. She feels outrage and anger. So do we. She feels a sense of violation. So do we. She feels frustrated, confused, anxious, uncertain, overwhelmed, and helpless. So do we.

So what is our job as men when this awful, awful thing happens to a woman near and dear to us? It is to do everything we can to restore her sense of control over her own life, her own body, her own experiences.

If she says she wants to talk about it, our job is to listen. If she’d rather talk about anything but, our job is to change the subject. If she doesn’t want to talk at all, we should shut up. If she wants to be held, we do. If she doesn’t want anyone to touch her, we don’t.

In short, to do everything we can to give the woman back her sense of control over her own life. That’s our job as men, and, with all due respect, I believe that should also be your job as legislators.

I’m almost embarrassed to mention my 2nd point, because it seems so trivial in comparison to the terrible emotional and psychological trauma I’ve just alluded to. However, I do so because, believe it or not, this is the only way to get thru to some people.

The average rapist is seldom considerate enuf to leave behind a cashier’s check for a hundred grand on the off chance that his assault will result in a child who needs to be raised to adulthood. The financial consequences of that result are indeed a hardship for many people, and it’s a hardship shared by the men.

So, as I said, this is indeed a woman’s issue, but it’s a men’s issue as well.

In earlier testimony, you heard a doctor talk about professional responsibility and standards of care. Those are the ethical considerations of his profession. You, as legislators, have ethical standards of your own to consider. Each of you took an oath of office to uphold the Wisconsin Constitution and the United States Constitution.

I’d like to remind you of the great guiding principles in the preamble of the US Constitution: “to promote the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity”.

“General welfare” means you need to look out for the health and well-being of ALL the citizens of the state. “Blessings of liberty” means that, to the maximum extent possible, those citizens should be able to make their own choices, to live as free people in a free society.

You will be asked today to legislate on the basis of narrower interests, to place restrictions on the options available to your constituents and other citizens of the state. That’s not your job. Your job is to look out for the best interests of the GENERAL population.

Now I’d like to turn to the 2nd constituency I mentioned earlier: atheists.

I myself am an atheist. I’m a founder of Atheists and Agnostics of Wisconsin, which is a member society of Atheist Alliance International, the world’s largest coalition of autonomous, democratic, grass-roots atheist organizations, and I’m an officer of the Alliance. However, as I said, I’m here representing only myself, not those organizations. I mention them only to demonstrate my own credentials as someone who’s familiar with the atheist viewpoint and who’s spent a lot of time thinking about interactions between religion and government.

In that regard, I’d like to respond to comments made by some earlier testifiers about the free exercise of religion. That is indeed part of the Bill of Rights, and we need to accord it every bit of respect we can. What they neglected to mention was the OTHER part of the 1st Amendment, the part that says “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”.

Obviously, these 2 clauses are in tension with each other. However, I believe there’s a good way to resolve that tension, and it goes to the phraseology used by some of the earlier testifiers.

I am somewhat amused, as a student of history, to see the idea of animism making a bit of a comeback. It used to be that ancient, primitive peoples thot that just about anything that moved — wind, lightning, the ocean, the Sun — or anything that grew had some kind of animating spirit, usually with its own patron god. As time went by, there was less and less of this, until now we’re down to only things like souls, angels, and of course gods.

Until today, when I heard some opponents of this bill talk about “the right of individual conscience” — which, I hasten to repeat, is something we should all respect and defend — but also “the right of institutional conscience”. OK, this is where the animism comes in. I’m here to tell you that institutions don’t have consciences. That’s because an institution is not alive, therefore it does not have a brain, therefore it cannot have thots, and thus it cannot have a conscience. What it CAN have are policies.

Let me repeat that: Institutions do NOT have consciences; all they have are policies.

And the first and foremost policy of every such institution should be “We will operate within the law!”.

Senate Bill 129 admirably does not address means, only ends. It says that a hospital MUST make EC available to a woman who’s been sexually assaulted; that is the desired end. It says nothing at all about how it has to go about it; those are the means, and they’re left entirely up to the institution itself.

If the hospital has employees who, as a matter of INDIVIDUAL conscience, don’t want to get involved in the process, they should not be assigned to such cases. If the hospital claims that it has NOBODY whose conscience permits such action, it has the legal responsibility, as a matter of good management, to go out and hire someone who CAN comply with the law.

Lastly, I want to address the issue, raised by many of the previous speakers, of when life begins. I believe the answer that would be given by most atheists is “about 4 billion years ago”. Every cell in your body — and for that matter, every cell in the pine tree on the corner, or your cats or dogs, or a sponge at the bottom of the ocean, or any glob of pond scum you’ve ever encountered — is a direct lineal descendant of that very 1st cell from billions of years ago. So, for that matter, is every single sperm cell and every single egg cell. They’re all alive, both before and after they combine.

Since life exists as a single unbroken continuum from the dawn of time, it is absolutely arbitrary to pick any particular point along the continuum and say “This is it. This is where it all begins. This is the start.”

The history of the Catholic Church in particular reflects this arbitrariness. At one point, it was said that life begins with the first breath (literally “INspiration”). Then it was set at the time of quickening, or first detectable motion in the womb. For awhile, it was the moment when the soul supposedly entered the body, which was set at 4 weeks for male fetuses and 8 weeks for female fetuses. [laffter] No, I’m not making this up — altho clearly SOMEBODY was! Of late, the magic moment has hovered somewhere around the time of conception, altho now they’re splitting hairs over whether that involves implantation or not.

Please! Clearly ANY point you care to pick is arbitrary, so why should any church or religion get to impose its preferences on everybody else? My plea to you, members of the committee, is to respect the separation of church and state. Do not enshrine the superstitions and prejudices of any religion into the law. Consider your obligation to look out for the general welfare, and to secure the blessings of liberty to the women of the state, and let them make up their own minds.

Thank you.

Monday, April 23, 2007

The REAL Free Enterprisers

The Democrats are the only major party which really BELIEVES in the free-enterprise system. They want to use government regulations to level the playing field for businesses, leading to all-guns-blazing competition and all the concomitant benefits that arise from a vigorous open market.

The Republicans want to use government as a source of huge, cost-plus, no-bid contracts for their fat-cat friends, favor "voluntary compliance" (IE no compliance at all) with health and safety regulations, and are all too happy to have monopolies instead of competition. You think that free-traders like Milton Friedman are happy with a Republican Party dominated by neo-cons and religious wackos? Think again.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Responding to Virginia Tech

Some of what you're about to read will initially appear wacko. Stick with it; it makes more sense after a bit. Also, I'm going to use masculine pronouns, because this is one case where the stereotype fits.

Statistics show that 19 out of 20 mass shooters are male. Since this single factor is the best predictor of who a mass shooter will be, what should we do about it? Well, one possible solution is to lock up all boys at age 13 and not let them out again until they're, say, 45. Too expensive? Then let's just pick out a few choice specimens to keep as breeding stock, keep them properly penned up, and shoot the rest.

OK, clearly such a "cure" would be worse than the "disease". Get ready for more of the same. Stirring about in the woodwork even as I write are a bunch of instant experts who are getting set to burst forth with THE reason that drives people to mass shootings, followed shortly thereafter by THE solution to it. And, of course, they'll all disagree with each other.

I take the exact opposite viewpoint. I contend that we already live in the best of all possible worlds (or pretty close to it) when it comes to mass shootings.

On April 16 — the very day on which Cho Seung-Hui gunned down 32 Virginia Tech classmates and faculty members, then took his own life — statistics show that we probably lost 120 people in traffic accidents, 90 due to bad drug prescriptions (no, not illegal drugs: legal medicines prescribed by licensed doctors but misdiagnosed, misfilled, or misapplied), 60 due to poisoning, 45 in falls, 20 on the job, and 20 due to aspirin. These just deal with SUDDEN deaths, not counting the 1200 (yes, per day) who died as a result of smoking, or the dozen who succumbed to asthma aggravated by particulate matter from coal-fired electrical plants and gasoline-powered motor vehicles, or thousands of others who met ends that they could see coming and get prepared for.

The main difference between the 33 dead at Virginia Tech and, say, the 20 killed at work? There were also 20 job-related deaths the day before, on April 15, and another 20 the day after, on April 17, and another 20 EVERY DAY THRUOUT THE ENTIRE YEAR!

So, are you snoozing off yet? Have you reached the point where you're throwing up your hands, shrugging your shoulders, rolling your eyes, and wondering "So what?"?

Look, it's not my intention to be callous, but don't YOU be callous, either. Every one of those deaths in car crashes or falls or aspirin poisoning took a real, living, breathing, aspiring human being away from the world prematurely. Every one of those deaths robbed society of somebody's talents. Every one was shocking and unexpected. Every one left behind grieving friends and relatives. Every one was a tragedy. Just like the 33 at Virginia Tech.

But we don't hear about those "routine" deaths. Why? Because they ARE routine. They're so common that, unless one of them touches us personally, we just don't care. We don't have the emotional strength to empathize with them all, so we tune them out. We even have names for the phenomenon: compassion fatigue, grief overload, or outrage burnout.

And, from the perspective of the media, they're just not news. Happened yesterday. Will happen again tomoro. Ho-hum.

The shootings at Virginia Tech, however, ARE news. Why? Precisely because they're so unusual, so rare. If we lived in, say, Baghdad, where ONLY 33 bullet-riddled corpses makes it a GOOD day, we'd be taking it in stride, just as we do traffic accidents.

So what SHOULD we do about sociopaths like Cho Seung-Hui?

My answer: Nothing.

We already have a bunch of alert systems, safeguards, and intervention strategies in place which are working pretty much the way they're supposed to. Cho had been taken under the wing of the VT English Department chair so he wouldn't scare the daylights out of his classmates any more. He'd been referred for psychiatric counseling. He'd been involuntarily (if temporarily) committed to a mental institution. The system was aware of him and was trying to deal with him.

Could it have done better? Probably. Nothing's perfect.

But could it have done worse? Oh, yeah! And we're about to be deluged with all sorts of proposed "improvements" to the system that would guarantee exactly that outcome.

Let's look at just one of those "improvements": the idea that Virginia Tech should have expelled Cho when it became aware of his problems.

This one, like the vast majority of "cures" you're soon going to hear about, would have exacerbated things. Expel someone only half as nuts as Cho and, in addition to having a disturbed psychopath, you've given him evidence that people really are out to get him AND instilled a grudge against the university AND robbed him of his support system. In short, you may have pushed him from resentful asshole to homicidal maniac.

And that doesn't even get at the "false positive" problem, which is the main downfall of almost all the "cures". The best example of the "false positive" problem is undoubtedly Prohibition, which was designed to address problem drinking by stopping ALL drinking. As it played out, Prohibition had the opposite effect. It swept up in its net people who were no problem or threat to society at all, while driving casual, responsible drinkers underground, incidentally making booze glamorous, crooks rich, politicians and cops corrupt, and the law an object of derision.

So what would be the "false positive" drawback to expelling problem students? Frankly, the sheer mass of people who would need to be expelled for exhibiting symptoms like Cho's. College is loaded with stressors: classes, labs, deadlines, relationship problems, hormones, lack of sleep, poverty, annoying roommates, poor nutrition, distractions, family expectations, and so on. Plus it's a place where young adults get to experiment with who they are and who they'd like to be.

Cho apparently was kind of weird, dressed funny, had poor social skills, and wrote bizarre stories. Hey, I'm a science-fiction fan. That description fits half of my best friends.

If colleges started kicking out everyone who was a little odd and reacted poorly to stressful situations, they'd be ghost towns.

A lot of the proposed "fixes" for mass murders will have something to say about guns. They will all have the same "false positive" problem as the above. 99.9% of the guns in America (and there are something like 220 million of them in civilian hands) will never be used to commit a crime of ANY kind, let alone mass murder. So any proposed "solution" to the problem of mass shootings that restricts firearms will invariably penalize way, WAY more innocent citizens than prospective lunatics.

I can pretty well guarantee you that people who focus on guns will spend a lot of time reciting deaths DUE to guns. What they will conveniently omit are the tales of the stressed-out mothers who drowned their kids in the bathtub, or who locked them in the car and pushed it into the lake, or cut off their arms on the advice of the voices. They'll fail to mention Julio Gonzalez, who had a grudge against an ex-girlfriend, set fire to the Happy Land nightclub where she worked, and did indeed get the intended victim -- along with 86 others. They'll overlook guys like Jeffrey Dahmer (strangled his victims), Ted Bundy (preferred a good whack upside the head with a blunt instrument), Richard Speck (kitchen knife), and Timothy McVeigh (fertilizer and fuel oil).

In short, the anti-gun people have got their favorite drum, and they're gonna keep beating on it, while ignoring the obvious fact that anyone bent on wreaking mass havoc has a world of tools at his disposal.

And how about the "causes" of violence? During my 6+ decades on the planet, I've heard blame placed on a lot of different things: the Commie menace, rock'n'roll, those long-haired hippie anarchists, violent movies, Dungeons and Dragons, video games, rap lyrics, and pretty much anything else young people are doing to piss off the older generation. The blame game continues unabated, with the blame-meisters apparently completely oblivious to the fact that, for every participant in the dreaded seductive behavior who goes off the deep end, there are a million more who not only don't but never commit a crime of ANY kind and end up as sober, respectable, responsible, productive, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.

In sum, the "causes" of mass murder are as varied, and unpredictable, as the tools.

Clearly what's needed is some kind of system that allows us to identify ONLY the prospective lunatics and precisely target exactly appropriate interventions at them and them alone. Ain't gonna happen. We're already doing about as well as can be expected, as evidenced by the remarkably low, low, low, low rate of deaths due to mass murderers. Further fiddling with the system will only make things worse.

Now, you wanna talk about a problem we CAN do something about, let's take a look at those deaths on the job, or from prescription drugs.

Oh, excuse me, did I wake you?

Saturday, April 21, 2007

The Idiot REAL ID Regulations

The ACLU, among other national organizations, is orchestrating a campaign to have citizens comment on proposed federal regulations requiring everyone to carry federally approved ID cards. It's called the "REAL ID" program, and you can learn more about it at:

I think the whole idea stinks to high heaven, for a flock of different reasons, but the following is the one I picked out to complain about when I submitted my formal comments on the proposal. I encourage my fellow Americans (especially those named David Nelson, Mary Smith, or Robert Johnson, who already have experience with the DHS terrorist watch list) to go to the website below and submit their own comments in their own words.

Date: 2007 Apr. 21

To: Department of Homeland Security

Re: Docket ID DHS-2006-0030

Let us assume for a moment that my home town has a problem with wolves running wild in the streets. The city council COULD address this problem by putting a bounty on them, or hiring trappers, or bringing in packs of trained hunting dogs. Instead, it decides to import more wolves.

What kind of sense does this make?

Well, about the same kind of sense as the proposed REAL ID law. Our nation is faced with the problem of too FEW people being allowed to vote. Long lines, faulty machinery, onerous registration requirements, outright cheating by people like Katherine Harris and Kenneth Blackwell, arbitrarily purged voter-registration lists, and so on have contributed to the US having the lowest voter-turnout percentages of ANY industrialized nation. (Go ahead, look it up; I'll wait.)

Contrarily, there is practically ZERO unauthorized, duplicate, or fraudulent voting. Virtually every case you see trumpeted in the headlines at the accusation stage gets quietly resolved in the back pages a month or so later, after the evidence comes in and shows that the case was groundless.

So what does DHS propose? Let's make it HARDER to vote! (Heck, while we're at it, let's import packs of wolves. THAT'LL keep 'em away from the polls!)

The very foundation of a democracy is letting EVERY voice be heard. The REAL ID regulations would make our current problems worse, not better.

I know, I know, you're going to express faux amazement and say "But our proposal doesn't have anything in it about voting." Right. That's just as disingenuous as our hypothetical city-council members saying "But who knew that our imported wolves would actually BITE people?".

In case I'm being too subtle with all of the foregoing, let me cut directly to the point: Your proposed REAL ID regulations suck ditch water. They are undemocratic verging on evil. Don't just revise them, revoke them. Go away and do what we hired you to do: guard America against foreign terrorists, not its own citizens.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Attack of the Anti-Superheroes

Fiction has lately been treated to an increase in the number of anti-heroes in lead roles. These are the protagonists with whom you are invited to identify and whose stories are in the foreground but whose behavior would normally qualify them as villains. The best known of these is fictional mob boss Tony Soprano, but they're popping up all over.

And, of course, comics feature superheroes — characters with one or more human traits that they have in abundance, or exaggerated beyond all reason, or perhaps powers that humans can only dream about (like flying ability).

I believe I've discovered a new class of critter that combines the features of both: the anti-superhero. And they walk among us.

I'll get to them in a bit. Let me start by setting the scene.

This past weekend, I attended Odyssey Con, a smallish general-purpose science-fiction convention here in Madison. The intimate feeling of the con was enhanced by its location in a commuter hotel — the Radisson near West Towne — whose meeting rooms were obviously designed for business presentations to audiences no larger than several dozen.

Also adding to the cozy atmosphere was the trifurcation of the attending audience, as the gamers and the film junkies each had their own rooms and tracks of programming and largely stuck to them. So, while there were 300 fans on the premises, only about 150 of them (at best) were involved in the con's general activities.

Since I spend a lot of my time at WisCon (Madison's other SF con, 3 decades old and topped out at 1000 members) doing registration and other organizational work, I don't get a chance to attend and participate in as much programming as I'd like. I try to make up for that at Odyssey Con (or OddCon, as it's affectionately known, even by the people who run it). At OddCon 7, I was on 7 panels and in the audience for a like number.

I must pause here to say a few words in praise of Jack McDevitt. He was one of the guests of honor at OddCon, and normally GoHs appear on a few panels for the primary purpose of answering questions about their own works and life experiences. As pros in the SF field, they are viewed as experts, and other panelists as well as audience members defer to them. They are not expected to have invested any time at all in specific preparation for any panel.

Not Jack! He not only appeared on a flock of panels, he moderated several of them. And he had done his homework! He had notes about each of his co-panelists, which he used during the introductions, as well as a cogent opening statement of his own and a list of questions to be raised on the panel topic. He did a spiffy job of controlling the flow of the discussion, reining in those who tended to go off on tangents while making sure that everyone who wanted to contribute could do so. And, of course, he himself had lots of interesting thots to contribute. He was friendly and accessible thruout the entire weekend.

And now we come to the anti-superhero part. While the majority of people attending the panels either listened quietly or had worthy contributions of their own to add, we also had to put up with, well, listen in ...

= = = = = =

 • The Triteness Repetition Team. Like the Teen Titans, each of whom has a single specialty, each of these guys takes some meaningless phrase as her or his very own and flogs it to death during every utterance.
   – "I Mean" Man
   – "Y'Know" Kid
   – "Like" Lass

 • Mr. Irrelevancy. Makes remarks that may have had something to do with what everyone was talking about 10 minutes ago but which land with a dead thud of "Huh?"s in the midst of what's going on now, bringing everything to a dead halt. (Not to be confused with Mr. Irrelevant, the last football player chosen in the annual NFL draft.)

 • Nasal Banal Woman. Adept at stating the trite and obvious, memorable for doing so in a remarkably irritating voice.

 • Stream of Consciousness Man. Gets started, thinks of something related, thinks of something related to that, keeps free associating indefinitely.

 • The Interrupter. Possibly related to Stream of Consciousness Man, The Interrupter also forms instant associations based on the current topic but, not having the floor at the time, shares these insights by blurting.

 • Technobabble Boy. Knows every obscure techie reference that's ever existed (or been imagined), as well as the TLA (three letter acronym) for it, and assumes everyone else does, too.

 • Pregnant Pause Dude. The photographic negative of Technobabble Boy, Pregnant Pause Dude assumes that he's surrounded by cretins who know pretty much nothing about anything, so he must frequently pause until the last dimwit around him finally twigs to the brilliant Einsteinian insight or outrageously clever Wildean turn of phrase he's just graced us with.

 • Monomania Man. "Why are you talking about all this other stuff? Lime Twizzlers! That's what's important!! Lime Twizzlers are a threat to mankind's very existence!!! Pay attention!!!! I will tell you all about LIME TWIZZLERS!!!!!"

 • Gushing Girl. Really, really, really, really admires the handsome young cartoonist on the panel and can hardly wait to tell him how brilliant he is. Yet again.

 • Auctor Novus. "What a remarkable coincidence yet again. Just as before, I deal with this very topic in my new book, Personal Miracle, just out in hardcover from Goliath Corp., $24.95, available in the dealer's room and, as I said, also via my website, ... Did you want me to spell that out for you? No, no, no problem. S - T - A ..."

= = = = = =

Now for the scary part. I understand they've cloned themselves and may be appearing soon at a con somewhere near you. And there are probably different kinds of anti-superheroes out there as well. If you run across any such, let us all know. Forewarned is forearmed.

Until next time ... Vigilance!

= = = = = =
Why do they call it tourist season if they won't let us shoot 'em?

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Good Advice from Kurt

Hello, babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. At the outside, babies, you've got about a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies: "God damn it, you've got to be kind."

-- Kurt Vonnegut, American writer (1922-2007), words of Eliot Rosewater in God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater


2007 April 7

Skeptical Inquirer
944 Deer Dr. NE
Albuquerque NM 87122

Skeptical Inquirer and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry (and CSICOP before it) have long contended that scientists are just too darned honest and earnest to detect attempts at fraud, and that they should bring magicians and similar tricksters along with them on their investigations.

I suggest that having a couple of science-fiction writers on hand would also be a good idea.

The four scientists who offered their views on SETI [Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence] and Astrobiology in your May/June issue differed in their assessments, but they all had two things in common:
  • They referred to those who expected SETI to be successful as “optimists” and those who did not as “pessimists”.
  • They were woefully limited in imagining what extra-terrestrial life might be like.

It may be optimistic to want contact with alien civilizations if they’re benign, like Steven Spielberg’s ET. But what if they’re like John Carpenter’s The Thing? In science fiction, for every Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke), there’s a “To Serve Man” (Damon Knight).

Peter Schenkel pooh-poohs this possibility, contending that any race capable of interstellar travel must necessarily have fundamental traits that include “unquenchable intellectual curiosity” and “scrutinizing spirit”, else “they could not have achieved their advanced standards”.

Oh, really? I suggest he spend some time with Larry Niven’s “Man-Kzin War” series. Here the Jotok are just such an advanced race. They arrive on the Kzin homeworld with their message of sweetness and light. The Kzin, descended from large predatory cats, overwhelm the Jotok, capture their starships, and set out across the galaxy in search of prey, glory, and honor. They needn’t bother with all the details of a technological civilization: that’s the sort of thing their miserable, cowardly Jotok slaves are good for. The Kzins’ job, as noble warriors and hunters, is to rule, dominate, kill, and eat.

Is it optimistic to hope that somebody like the Kzin notices us? Maybe the reason we haven’t heard any signals from other civilizations is because they’ve all got the good sense not to advertise their presence.

As your writers acknowledge, SETI is looking for Earth-like life on Earth-like planets. How unimaginative. Life, in the most general sense, is self-reproducing organized complexity. What’s going on in the hugely voluminous clouds of gas-giant planets like Jupiter? How about the rarified nebulae of outer space, where life spans of billions of years may be possible (if slow)? What about magnetic vortices within stars? And we don’t even know what dark matter (25% of the Universe) and dark energy (70%) are, let alone how they might be organized.

SETI is searching in the radio spectrum. But for what? In barely a century of radio on Earth, we’ve used 3 different transmission techniques (AM, FM, and digital), each of which sounds like noise to the other 2. Indeed, information theory tells us that the most efficient form of communication involves tight encryption (like MPEG, JPEG, and MP3 files), with all redundancies stripped out, a signal which truly is indistinguishable from noise, even if you’re listening using the proper techniques. David Darling acknowledges this when he writes “The galaxy may be swarming with advanced intelligence that is as invisible to us as satellite communications is to a native in the rainforest.”, but even he is looking for quasi-humans. Who’s listening for modulated gravity waves or digital-pulse neutrino emissions?

I could go on, but there’s no need to. A couple of excellent authors have already done so at book length: What Does a Martian Look Like? The Science of Extraterrestrial Life (Wiley, 2002, 369 pages, ISBN 0-471-26889-5), in which Jack Cohen (professor of biology) and Ian Stewart (professor of mathematics, also at University of Warwick in Coventry) contend that life is inordinately opportunistic and can take on many more forms than the limited imaginations of Ward and Brownlee (Rare Earth) have allowed for.

Oh, yeah. They also write science fiction.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Contra Secular Humanist "Communities"

2007 Apr. 10

Letters Editor
Free Inquiry
PO Box 664
Amherst NY 14226-0664

As the old joke goes, the Lone Ranger and Tonto are holed up in the rocks, encircled by screaming bloodthirsty Indians, and their ammo is running low, when the masked man says "Well, old friend, we may have reached the end of the line at last." To which Tonto replies "What you mean 'we', white man?"

In the April/May issue of Free Inquiry, Paul Kurtz asks "... whether we can create alternative [non-church] institutions that satisfy the hunger for meaning, that satisfy our ideals, that support sympathetic communities, that are able to provide comfort in times of stress." To which I reply, "What you mean 'we', philosopher?"

If by "we" you mean organized, self-avowed secular humanists, then I say "No way, José. Nuh-uh. Absolutely not. Not our job."

But if you mean free people in a free society, then I smile and rejoin "No worries, mate. Mission accomplished!"

Our country comprises the joiningest people in the history of the planet. In addition to family and workplace (which are almost universal), Americans are also active in local government, political parties, citizen committees, naborhood associations, parent-teacher organizations, graduating classes, sororities, fraternities, fraternal lodges, service clubs, charitable volunteers, sewing circles, kaffee klatsches, book-discussion groups, literary fandoms, gaming geekdoms, bowling leagues, and soccer teams -- so many different TYPES of community, in fact, that the above list doesn't repeat a single noun.

And they are overwhelmingly secular (not motivated by religion at all) and humanist (revolving around our mundane world and quotidian concerns and activities).

Even the groups with less or more religious flavoring (Boy Scouts, Habitat for Humanity, Masons) are dominantly engaged in secular activities.

And this is true not because they are irreligious or trying to make some kind of statement about separation between church and state but simply because religion isn't directly relevant to most aspects of life in a modern society.

Now consider the exceptions. Do you recognize these catchphrases? "Where were you?" "Who were you with?" "Don't you know how much I love you?" "We only need each other." These expressions of jealous possessiveness are the early danger signals of spousal abuse. Left to run their course, they often end in "Don't make me hurt you again." and "If I can't have you, no one will!" -- the churchly equivalent of which played out at Jonestown, Waco, and Heaven's Gate.

Fundamentalist and evangelical efforts to build community by being all things to "their" people are like the road to spousal abuse — equally creepy, emotionally stunting, and psychologically damaging. People need and crave variety in their lives, and a vibrant, diverse, open society is more than capable of providing it for them.

The churches are making a mistake and wasting their resources by trying to recreate, in miniature, pervasively sectarian fashion, all of the institutions of the greater society, out of mortal dread that their members will be seduced by exposure to non-religious "lovers".

We secular humanists need have no such fears. We should concentrate on simply advocating secular humanism and let our free people find (or, better, create!) their own communities.

= = = = = =
Richard S. Russell, a Bright (
2642 Kendall Av. #2, Madison WI 53705-3736
608+233-5640 *

= = = = = =
Sum homo, et nihil humanum a me alienum puto. [I am a man, and nothing that concerns a man is uninteresting to me.]
-- Terence, Roman poet

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Write Your Own Obituary

For awhile, my local newspaper (The Capital Times) used to have a column where you could write in a question about little things that had piqued your curiosity, and they'd sic a reporter on it to turn up the answer.

I wrote in asking why they didn't apply their normal gimlet-eyed, no-nonsense, "nothing but the facts" journalistic standards to the obituaries. "Cousin Mary is now singing with the angels." Yeah? Got the photos to prove it? Whom exactly did you dispatch to the hereafter to report on the recent arrivals?

The response, which admirably was done in the same tongue-in-cheek manner as my original question, was essentially that the newspaper itself doesn't write the obituaries, it only prints them and doesn't vouch for their accuracy. And, since nothing's being offered for sale, the laws about false advertising don't apply.

So let's go with it, shall we? Make sure that you've already written your own obituary, and that your heirs have copies of it to send to the newspaper. Start with a few basic facts, but then go on to the part about discovering the cure for cancer, writing the Great American Novel, having a brilliant opera career, being re-elected 20 times as governor of your fair state, and winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Twice. To go along with your Pulitzer, your Oscars, and the Olympic gold medal for downhill skiing.

What the hell, what are they gonna do? Sue you?

And, face it, wouldn't you rather be known for ANY of those things than for singing with the angels?

= = = = = =
Grim Reaper: Silence!!! I have come for you.
Angela: ... You mean to...
Grim Reaper: ... Take you away. That is my purpose. I am Death.
Geoffrey: Well, that's cast rather a gloom over the evening, hasn't it?
-- Monty Python, The Meaning of Life

Friday, April 06, 2007

What I Learned during the National Weather Service’s “Severe Weather Awareness Week”

The greatest danger from lightning comes when you’re standing on high ground. Get off that hilltop and get into a car.

The greatest danger from tornadoes comes when you’re on the open road. Get out of your vehicle and lie down in a ditch.

The greatest danger from flooding comes when you’re in a low-lying area. Get out of that valley and head for the hills.

The greatest danger from lightning comes ...